Thoughts on Science
In early March, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed - a social media platform I use almost exclusively for science communication (and occasional Blues hockey) - when I saw a Tweet from Matt Schuler about Tyson Research Station. They had reduced their use of road salt this winter by using brine.
I was so glad to read about a local organization taking advantage of brine, that I actually clicked on the article and read all about their brining system. That was when I got REALLY excited. You see, the article mentions "a Brining Workshop organized by [Washington University] and the St. Louis Higher Education Sustainability Consortium." I was one of the two speakers at that workshop! This is the first time that I can say for certain that my research and my outreach efforts have resulted in a change in how road salt is used. They report using only a fifth of the amount of salt that they would have used without their in-house brining system. And, not including the things they already had on-hand, it only cost them $100 to put together the system.
I love success stories like this! If you know of any other groups that have started using brine and are having success at cutting their salt use, please comment so we can spread the word!
According to the dataloggers, winter salt season is certainly over. During the winter, conductivity levels would spike with every snowstorm. Now that we have had several spring storms, we are seeing conductivity dropping each time it rains.
When it rains, the water level in the stormwater pipes rises (blue triangles). In February, the spikes in water coincides with a high spike in conductivity (black line). Once we get into March, rainfall stopped triggering spikes above 1000, the apparent baseline in this location (red line; note that the times when conductivity is 0 are times when the sensor on the logger was out of the water).
For those volunteers who have not already, please send me any data you have collected this winter. And if you want to see what the volunteers have found, visit our data collection. Keep an eye out for an updated GIS map of the data this summer.
Scientists do many things. At any given time, a scientist may be planning new studies, grant writing, and collecting data; reading, writing, and revising; compiling, analyzing, and presenting; learning, teaching, and mentoring. And there is waiting: waiting for projects to be funded, waiting for purchased resources to arrive, waiting for feedback, waiting for data to be collected, waiting for collaborators to contribute the next piece, waiting for journals to decide if your work is worthy of their publication, waiting for inspiration... Fortunately, there is so much to do as a scientist that when you are waiting to be able to continue with one task, there are at least four or five urgent tasks that you should be working on. Multitasking has always been a way of life for me, but working on my PhD is taking it to a whole new level.
Currently, I am working on two grant-funded projects. The first is an EPA funded project looking at the transport of road salt in urban stormwater. The funding of this grant has not been impacted by political events; I'm crossing my fingers that this will continue. At this point, I am mostly in the data collection phase of this project: downloading data each month from field equipment and checking to make sure everything is still in place after storms. But there is much more than just data collection going on. In order to fulfill our contract with EPA, I need to generate quarterly reports, plan and carry out public meetings, communicate my work to the general public (I'll be at St. Louis Earth Day in Forest Park if you'd like to say hi!), and make sure the results of my study are shared with the right people to make a difference (ie, publish my work). In order to generate a publication based on the data I am gathering right now, I need to become familiar with a large amount of previous work completed along the same lines as my work. This includes reports on methods of data analysis that I may use, documents that provide guidance to municipal stormwater managers, and many other scientific papers. There is a lot to do!
My second project was funded by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, a nonprofit group established in 1920 that works to stimulate interest in nature study and observation in the St. Louis area. They graciously provided funding for me to collect and identify the aquatic macroinvertebrates (small water critters) that are living in 20 streams in St. Louis County. I collected my first set of 60 samples (three from each stream) last September and October. Each of these samples included at least 3 types of critters, but many held 10 or more. Each sample also had a large amount of non-critter debris: leaves, small sticks, sand, silt, small gravel, seeds, glass and anything else you can imagine finding in an urban, suburban, or rural stream. Just yesterday, I finished sorting through those 60 samples that I collected almost 6 months ago to separate the critters from the debris and to group the critters in individual containers (mostly by order or family). I will eventually try to identify each to its species, but that will have to wait; for the next few weeks I will be heading back to those locations to collect 60 more samples to sort and identify! In the meantime I will at least make the time to count the number of types of critters I found in each location and see how that compares to the road salt measurements that have been made. Check back soon for that info!
Use of road salt is damaging to many urban and suburban stream ecosystems in the St. Louis region, as well as in other urban areas across the globe where winter brings frozen precipitation. Techniques are available that allow road crews to reduce the amount of salt (generally sodium chloride and calcium chloride) needed to keep streets clear. One of these is the application of anti-icing solutions (brine) before a winter storm hits.
I’ve been collecting data this winter that will allow me to compare chloride concentrations in stormwater in six municipalities. Each municipality has its own public works department that uses their own management strategies for winter storms. Within these communities, equipment placed in the stormwater system is collecting water level and conductivity data every 5 minutes. These data will allow me to estimate the amount of chloride that flows through the stormwater system for each storm.
In the coming months, I will combine the chloride data from each location with the area of roadway that drains into that portion of the stormwater system along with information from the public works teams. With this information, I will be able to identify what management practices are most useful in reducing road salt use.
Rarely do we consider what is under our feet as we walk down the street. There may be a labyrinth just a couple of meters below your toes. Generally, the series of pipes and tubes that make up the stormwater system are relatively empty, aside from a trickle of water, some discarded cups and cans, and possibly a big pile of leaves.
When we get precipitation (either rain or meltwater from sow and ice), the stormwater system becomes a completely different place. The network of pipes fill with water moving at high speeds.
When putting monitoring equipment into a stormwater pipe, there are several important things to keep in mind: